Strange fads, outrageous fashions, incomprehensible crazes… Japan has achieved worldwide fame for being “weird.”
Say this to some people and they will roll their eyes and assure you that Japan is not as strange as you think. And many ways they are right: the famously crazy fashion trends of Harajuku have long passed their zenith and the notorious knicker-vending machines are (thankfully) now nowhere to be seen. Japan is a place of abundant culture and fascinating heritage – perhaps focusing too much on the “weird” is reductive. What with the boom years long behind it, is Japan no weirder than any other country?
If such is the case, then somebody evidently forgot to tell Japan’s restaurant scene. Tokyo has a dazzling array of fine dining options and holds more Michelin stars than Paris – but it is the city’s themed restaurants that really take the biscuit. Starting with the prison-hospital-themed Alcatraz E.R. about fifteen years ago, Tokyo’s madcap diners have gone from strength to strength, running the gamut from Thunderbirds-themed diners to restaurants where you catch your own dinner, to eateries where you nibble at pieces of sushi plucked delicately from gashes in the side of a papier maché corpse.* Now tell me that’s not weird.
This extraordinary culinary eccentricity is unmatched worldwide, and shows no sign of abating. The following is my personal pick of the ten weirdest, funniest and most downright nauseating out of some quite surprisingly stiff competition:
Ever since the first branch opened in London in 2013, cat cafés are decidedly old hat. Dog cafés and rabbit cafés – been there, done that. For those seeking a more unusual furry companion with whom to share some lettuce and maybe a cup of coffee, why not visit Sakuragaoka – a goat café in the heart of Shibuya?
OK, so this restaurant chain didn’t originate in Japan – it actually started in Taiwan (itself a frontrunner in the utterly bizarre dining experience stakes). Nonetheless, Modern Toilet has spread to Japan and is apparently a roaring success in Tokyo, though I for one am at a loss to understand why. As part of this frankly rather repugnant culinary experience, customers eat their food seated on actual (non-working) loos and eat their food (which, naturally, all resembles poo or vomit) out of a variety of loo-shaped receptacles. I can’t say that eating faecal matter is at the top of my to-do list, so maybe some other time…
Along the same lines as the venerable Alcatraz E. R., the Lockup is Tokyo’s prison-themed restaurant du jour. If being dragged screaming and handcuffed through a genuinely terrifying house-of-horrors-style corridor, locked in a cell and fed plates of food shaped like eyeballs with cocktails served in syringes, this is the dining experience for you. And if you really like eating body parts, why not head to Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu (that’s “Examination Room” to you and me) in the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku for a medical-themed drink and some tasty sides served up in kidney dishes?
Reportedly kitted out to the tune of 10 billion yen, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is the all-flashing, breast-wielding, epilepsy-inducing dining experience that everyone is talking about. In terms of food you’re decidedly not in for a treat (you’ll find better fare at your local convenience store for a fraction of the price), but boy is the show worth it. Scantily-clad women, scantily-clad robots, tanks, sharks… you name it, the Robot Restaurant has it wearing a bikini and covered in lights. This is Japan as it was in the boom years, and we love it.
Nothing says a great night out like the Catholic Church, so why not pull up a pew or sequester yourself in a confessional at Christon Café? Here you’ll find fancy Asian-European fusion cuisine, a variety of religious iconography, the occasional all-night fetish party and, if you were raised a Catholic, possibly a sensation of mild dread. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then you obviously don’t know how to have a good time.
Sticking with the religious theme, Vowz is a Tokyo bar serving a heady mixture of booze and Buddhism with blue neon backlighting. Run by real robe-wearing, shaven-headed monks, this is a place where Tokyoites can come to drink cocktails and listen to some good old-fashioned chanting and sermons instead of that rubbish music that everyone else seems to be so keen on. Different strokes, different folks.
The archetypal Japanese themed dining experience, Maid Cafés have long moved past the realm of faddishness and into permanent fixture territory. You only have to take a few steps through nerdtastic Akihabara to stumble across a maid enticing you to her establishment, and the offerings range from the cutesy and innocent to the very odd indeed. Be treated like the master of the house, say some magic words over your smiling ketchup-decorated food, play board games, pose for a photo – the maids at some Maid Cafés will blow on your food and feed it to you, or even ask you maths questions and give you a slap round the face when you get them wrong. (This, apparently, does float some people’s boats, and who am I to judge them?)
Mr. Kanso started in Osaka in 2002 and became so inexplicably successful that it now boasts seventeen outlets across Japan – including, of course, Tokyo. Mr. Kanso has no menus, only shelves stacked with hundreds of different types of canned food from across the globe. Customers choose from such delicacies as “Todo niku kare” (sealion curry), canned cocktail sausages, French salad, and whale meat (tut tut, Mr. Kanso) – all served cold in a can and gobbled up with plastic cutlery. Apparently it’s the variety that keeps customers coming back for more… Well it must be something.
At Zao, customers are seated in a giant, fake wooden boat and have to reel in their own meal from the surrounding “ocean” using fishing rods. After you’ve landed your catch, you can choose how to have it cooked! It may be gimmicky, but it’s definitely fantastic fun, and can be found in several cities across Japan.
Ninja Akasaka combines top-notch Japanese cuisine with (you guessed it) a ninja theme. Waiters and waitresses dressed as assassins sneak up on you with menus and the wood-panelled restaurant is kitted out to resemble the inside of a Japanese castle. The in-house magician will keep you entertained with a repertoire of tricks whilst you wait – the whole enterprise is just extremely enjoyable and very well geared for tourists. Not the cheapest of themed restaurants in Tokyo, but a great one for families!
Some of the restaurants and bars that didn’t make it on to this top ten include the video game-themed Capcom Bar and a Gundam Café, the train-themed Little TGV, the Vampire Café, an Alice in Wonderland restaurant, sumo and samurai restaurants, Yurei Izakaya with its ghostly waiters, a school lunch-themed eatery, Biohazard Café and Grill, Arabian Rock (from the loons who brought you Alcatraz E. R.), The Wizard of the Opera, Princess Heart (the names speak for themselves really) – not to mention the themed diners across the rest of Japan.
Try some out next time you’re in Japan!
* OK, so the corpse sushi turned out to be a hoax. But in the context of the above it wouldn’t be entirely surprising!